By Ernesto Londoño and Josh White
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 27, 2008
BAGHDAD, June 26 -- Two bombings in Iraq on Thursday killed at least 40 people, among them three Marines and two interpreters who were part of a civil affairs team meeting with Sunni tribal leaders, U.S. military officials said.
Thirteen Americans, including two civilians, have been killed in Iraq since Monday, most of them during or immediately after meetings with local leaders or officials. The pattern illustrates the continuing risks that service members and diplomats face as they attempt to build up the Iraqi government.
U.S. military officials said the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq was responsible for both attacks. Since last year, many Sunnis have joined forces with the U.S. military to combat the group, which U.S. officials say they have weakened.
The Marines came under attack at approximately 11 a.m., Iraqi officials said, when a suicide bomber detonated explosives inside a building in Anbar province in western Iraq. U.S.-led coalition forces have been preparing to transfer responsibility for Anbar's security to the Iraqi government in coming days.
In a second attack Thursday, in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, a car bomb exploded within feet of the provincial governor, killing at least 18 people and wounding 80, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. The governor was not harmed.
At least 29 Americans have been reported killed in Iraq in June, up from 19 last month, according to the Web site iCasualties.org, which tracks casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of U.S. military deaths in Iraq has dropped significantly since last summer; more than 100 soldiers were killed in June 2007.
"We're having a couple of tough weeks right now," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday. "You are not going to be able to stop every one of these bombers. That's just a fact of life. But . . . I think there's no arguing with the overall security situation improvement, including in Anbar."
The Anbar bombing was in Karmah, a town just east of Fallujah. The Marines had frequently met with Sunni tribal leaders in the building where the attack occurred. At least 22 people were killed, the U.S military said, including the town's top official, Kamal al-Abdali.
Also killed was Mozhir Mohammed al-Jumaily, one of the leaders of a U.S.-backed, predominantly Sunni armed group known as the Awakening. Such groups have successfully fought Sunni insurgent groups in several parts of the country.
U.S. military officials blamed al-Qaeda in Iraq, which in recent weeks has threatened to attack Sunnis who have close ties to Americans.
Rafie Mishhen, the commander of Awakening forces in Karmah, said the bomber walked into the building without raising suspicion because he was a local resident. Mishhen said the bomber wore sweat pants and a loose jacket.
"He rushed in the door where the meeting was taking place and blew himself up," Mishhen said.
Efan Alesawee, 38, another Awakening leader in Karmah, said it was premature to hand over responsibility for security in the area to the Iraqi government. "It's becoming worse every day," he said in a phone interview. "We have fought very hard, but we cannot control this area."
Security in Anbar province has improved considerably since the years following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Fallujah, a city in Anbar that was once one of the most volatile in Iraq, is now heavily guarded. But suicide bombers have killed dozens of people in outlying areas in recent months.
Col. Faisal Ismail al-Zobaie, the police chief in Fallujah, said the attack was unsurprising.
"We expected this to happen, because al-Qaeda has for months tried to find any gap in security," he said.
The attack in Mosul happened in a crowded commercial street in the Bab al-Toob neighborhood, which is near the building that houses the governor's office.
Ahmad Hamid, a photojournalist in Mosul, said he was in the building when a rocket landed at a market nearby.
"When this happened, the governor decided to go and see for himself the damage that this caused," Hamid said in a telephone interview.
As Iraqi security forces began asking people to leave the area, a car bomb exploded roughly 30 yards from where the rocket landed, Hamid said.
Gov. Duraid Kashmoula's bodyguards whisked him away and weapons were fired into the air, Hamid said. "It all happened very fast."
Lt. Col. Robert J. Molinari, a U.S. military official in Mosul, said investigators haven't found evidence suggesting the governor was the target.
Iraqi and U.S. forces launched an operation in the province last month in an effort to crack down on al-Qaeda in Iraq. Molinari said the operation has limited insurgents' ability to plant roadside bombs and launch mortar and rocket attacks.
"Overall, attacks remain low in Mosul compared to before" the operation began, he said in an e-mail Thursday night. "The insurgents are frustrated with new checkpoints, lack of material, and the constant detention or elimination of their key leaders."
This week, U.S. officials announced that they killed the military leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq in Mosul. The man, known as Abu Khalaf, was killed Tuesday during a raid, the U.S. military said.
Khalid al-Ubayde, 33, a graduate student in Mosul, said he didn't think the security situation in the city had improved since the offensive began. Iraqi security forces detained hundreds of suspected insurgents during the first week of the operation.
"When the security forces made their operations, they did it very quickly and withdrew because they didn't find any kind of resistance," he said. "The real gunmen were hiding."
White reported from Washington. Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi, Aziz Alwan and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad, Uthman al-Mokhtar in Fallujah and Dlovan Brwari in Mosul and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.